In the early 1800s, Americans started migrating westward in droves, driven by the promise of land, jobs and even gold. This gave American artists a new favorite subject: the people and landscapes of the West.

Backstory: Western American Art in Context, sponsored by the Sturm Family Foundation, pairs nearly 50 of these works of art from the Denver Art Museum’s collection with artifacts from History Colorado Center’s archives to tell the story of the American West, spanning from the 1830s to the 1940s. But the artifacts don’t just complement the art — they tell the stories beyond the art and fill in the spaces that art leaves blank.

“We’re acknowledging from the beginning that most of the art is from a white, male, European-American viewpoint,” says Alisa DiGiacomo, senior curator of artifacts and curator of art and design at History Colorado (and our guide for the morning). For many Americans, their first — and often only — experience of the West was through the paintings, sketches, sculptures and, later, photographs taken by the white men who came to the West to explore the area, and whose work was then published in newspapers, magazines and books back East.

Backstory’s artifacts offer other perspectives: women, American Indians, Spanish Americans, African-Americans, and those of different social and economic classes. Some benefitted from white westward expansion while others did not. 

“I wasn’t just looking for samples of artifacts from each time period,” DiGiacomo explains. “I was looking for artifacts that told the stories of the everyday people of the West. The hidden stories.”

Backstory exhibition at History Colorado CenterThat intention is apparent from the start. Although the earliest painting on loan from Denver Art Museum is from around 1820, History Colorado begins the visitor’s journey with a display of black-and-white ceramic bowls from the Ancestral Puebloan communities of Mesa Verde, the earliest dating back as far as 900 AD. It’s a nod to the fact that the West was already settled by people who were creating their own history—and their own art—long before the first Europeans showed up with their sketchbooks and oil paints.

From there, the exhibit continues in chronological order. Different eras and themes are signaled by changing wall colors to complement the art and artifacts and help carry visitors through different time periods of the exhibition. 

As for the artwork and exhibits themselves, there’s plenty to marvel at:

  • A telescope that belonged to explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
  • A bronze statue (one of the first cast in the U.S.) of a young American Indian warrior who looks like he’d be more at home in a museum in Athens, given the classical Greek style of the sculpture.
  • A vaquero-style saddle used by generations of the Gutierrez family, ranchers who emigrated from Spain in the late 1700s and who gave Trinidad, Colo., its name.
  • The surveyor’s compass used to map the streets of Denver in the 1860s.
  • A giant oil painting of nearby Estes Park and Longs Peak by famed landscape painter Albert Bierstadt. (If the mountains look a little bigger than you remember them, it’s because Bierstadt often took “artistic license” with his peaks, sometimes doubling them in size for dramatic effect.)
  • A cotton quilt made by Clara Cassandra Moore, a homesteader who moved to Colorado from Georgia, which hangs next to a stereograph print of a group of gold miners—a homey reminder that it wasn’t just men who settled the West.
  • The 1930s Kodak folding camera that photographer Fred Payne Clatworthy used to take some of the first color photographs of the West for National Geographic.  

 

There’s an abundance of cowboy accoutrement on display as well, from bronze sculptures of bronco busters to an actual chuck wagon from the Zapata Ranch in the San Luis Valley. And, for the modern cowboy, there’s a Rockmount Ranch Wear shirt, its design based on a 1946 advertisement from the year the company was founded.

But this nostalgic vision of the Wild West is juxtaposed with artifacts that paint a less-romantic picture, such as a photo of Chief Crazy Bear in his Ghost Dance Suit before his death at Wounded Knee and a U.S. government ration card from a reservation, where many American Indians faced struggle and starvation after being forcibly removed from their lands.

I ask DiGiacomo if she has a favorite piece in Backstory, and she points to a drum from the Civil War. The drum belonged to a 16-year-old Union soldier named Lorenzo Taylor. If you look closely, you can see where the drum was repaired after Taylor tossed it over a bank. He was, understandably, tired of carrying it after a long march, but scrambled to retrieve it when the bugle sounded. Another “hidden story” brought to light.

Although Backstory ends in the 1940s with the lead up to World War II, DiGiacomo says that the exhibit still looks toward the future.

“The West is always changing,” she says, “but we still face challenges regarding who owns the land and the water, how to handle all the new people moving here. It still has relevance today.”

Backstory: Western American Art in Context is on display at History Colorado Center now through Feb. 11, 2018.